The History of Billboards – Learn the Secrets of Their Artistic Origin

The word ‘billboard’ came from ‘billing board’. If you have not seen one already, it is a large advertising structures found along busy highways, expressways and other high traffic places. Billboards usually display witty slogans and some form of visual design to grab attention. To appreciate billboards, it is important to understand their history.

Billboards were born out of necessity – the necessity was the conveyance of messages to people who were illiterate. According to archaeological findings, the oldest known billboard was used in Thebes in Egypt about three thousand years ago. It was used to offer a reward for the capture of a runaway slave. More recently, the predecessor of today’s modern billboard can be said to be the billposting. This was used in Europe as a source of informal information as opposed to advertising.

Most people may not realize that billboards were initially used as an expression of art towards the end of the eighteenth century when lithography was invented. The very first poster that had an artistic theme was created by Frederick Walker, an Englishman, in 1871 for a play in London. At the start of the twentieth century, there were many schools teaching poster art and some artists such as Talouse Lautrec made names for themselves.

Circus posters formed the first large-scale use of billboards for advertising. The billboards were secured or printed on trucks that were horse-drawn. This was done to increase interest for the shows. At the time, the billboards were not controlled by laws and they were not standardized. The first standard for billboards was set at 19.5 ft by 8.7 ft which was equivalent to the twenty-four sheet poster panels used today.

Eventually standard billboard sizes evolved out of these humble beginnings. These billboard standards were then agreed to by organizations in the United States between 1872 and 1912 which became the standard adopted by different countries all over the world.

Billboards have had a big influence in the nightlife in cities. Before the use of electric billboards in the early 20th century, cities were foreboding places at night. Electric billboards brought cities to life. In fact, one might argue that billboards gave birth to nightlife because people could stay out later at night.

Towards the end of 1920s, ordinary folks were buying cars and they were travelling more often and further distances. This led to the use of billboards along highways, expressways, and other roads. The first billboards borrowed heavily from what was going on in the society, as they do today. They were an illustration that portrayed a trouble-free world in the 1930s when the world was undergoing the Great Depression.

Subsequent billboards contained sexual innuendos in the 1950s. In the 1960s, billboards contained celebrity endorsement. In the 1970s, people were becoming interested in the environment, billboards and outdoor advertising borrowed from nature.

Currently, the most common billboards, in no particular order, are entertainment and amusements, business and consumer services, publishing and media, travel, hotels and resorts, beer and wine, automotive, drugs and remedies, tobacco, insurance and real estate, and retail. Now that you know where billboards came from and how they have evolved over time, are you ready to get involved with billboards and make a profit?

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